Sunday, June 23, 2013

Defining Modesty

Modesty has been a hot topic in some of my social circles of late, ever since this video began making the rounds. Many people, perhaps the majority among my friends, soundly affirmed the speaker and her commitment to modesty. They decried its demise in American and Western culture. I can understand that. After all, modesty seems like a very good and desirable quality. Who wouldn't want to affirm it?

However, after watching the video I felt disturbed. When I read this article I found that I agreed with the author's critiques. Among other things, in the rush to affirm modesty we miss that the speaker, Jessica Ray, is in fact marketing to us. She is promoting her line of swimwear and with it an understanding of what modesty looks like. And that's a significant problem, because who defines modesty? offers three definitions of modesty:

  1. the quality of being modest; freedom from vanity, boastfulness, etc.
  2. regard for decency of behavior, speech, dress, etc.
  3. simplicity, moderation

Most discussion of modesty these days focuses on the second definition, narrowing it even further to standards of dress. More specifically, the discussions focus almost exclusively on standards of dress for women. Those who advocate for a return to modesty generally have in mind some more conservative standard of attire, such as a rejection of bikinis, which is Ms. Rey's particular issue.

Yet the fundamental problem remains: Who defines what is modest? Standards of modesty change from one culture to another and within any given culture over a period of time. What one person considers quite modest might to another person be extremely immodest. As the author of the blog To Every One That Believeth points out, Ms. Rey's dress in her video would not meet modesty standards at BYU, although by other standards it is perfectly modest. Simply covering or exposing skin does not make a woman (or man) modest or immodest. No matter how one defines modesty, it will be too much for some and too little for others. Modesty is ultimately a subjective position. I am free to argue that I like or do not like a person's attire, but by what right do I proclaim that it is immodest and project my standard onto the other person? Even more so, by what right do I judge another person based on what she or he is wearing? (Let's admit that the conversation really comes down to what women wear and our judgment of women for that, because few people seem too concerned about what men are wearing. Guys can go around topless in many social contexts without fear of being labeled immodest and immoral, although I and probably many others would much prefer to not see their bare bellies.)

This leads to a second issue with the modesty debate. All too often advocates of modesty connect what a woman wears with what kind of person she is. A woman who wears a bikini, or bares her shoulders, or arms, or whatever is unacceptable according to the particular definition of modesty, is “obviously” a loose, immoral person. This may not always be stated explicitly, but it underlies much of modesty culture. Let's call this for the falsehood that it is. What you wear does not define what kind of person you are, and if others choose to define you based solely on your attire, then they are the ones in error.

Women are also encouraged to dress modestly for the sake of protecting their dignity and to avoid provoking the men around them to lustful thoughts and actions. In this way women become responsible for the actions of men, rather than men being responsible for their own actions. In Ms. Rey's video, she cites a study at Princeton which she uses to argue that men who see bare female flesh respond mentally in the same way they do to images of tools. In other words, they objectify women. Putting aside the significant flaws of the study, one very limited data sample does not conclusively demonstrate that men naturally respond as animals when seeing women's skin. When we put the burden on women to not provoke men by their attire, we say that men cannot be held responsible for their behavior and that they are incapable of acting differently. That's a low view of men and an unfair burden to place on women. When modesty becomes the means by which a woman must protect herself from inappropriate male behavior, then we have identified the wrong problem and the wrong solution. The problem is the behavior of men and the solution is for men to learn to view women as human beings and treat them accordingly. Instead, modesty allows men to continue to behave like cretins towards women and blames the women for this behavior. Something is seriously wrong with this picture.

I find it interesting as well that the modesty discussion seems to ignore the other two definitions provided above. A modest person – male or female – should behave without vanity and boastfulness. A modest person should express simplicity and moderation. These go far beyond issues of how one dresses to one's very character. This may express itself in one's attire, but more significantly it will express itself in one's attitude and actions. As people of God we should all strive to live without vanity. We should all avoid boastfulness. Scripture says far more about these issues than it does about what one wears. And these standards apply equally to both men and women. I affirm modesty as a principle, but I cannot accept the way in which it has been hijacked lately to define a certain type of attire for women. I am working to see each person as a God-created unique individual and not judge them by what they are wearing, even if I do not personally find it tasteful or appealing. Ultimately people should be able to dress according to a standard that they feel comfortable with, not according to what someone else says is modest and decent. If you want to wear a one-piece bathing suit, I wholeheartedly affirm that. But if you prefer a bikini, than that is your choice as well and it is not my place to tell you otherwise.

On a final note, as a parent of two teenage children – one boy, one girl – I do believe that parents have a right and a responsibility to guide their children in their choice of clothing. But with that comes a responsibility to educate them, to help them develop their own identity and the ability to choose attire that accords with that identity. As parents we play such a formulative role in helping our children define their identity. I think a mistaken emphasis on a false standard of modesty may do more to skew that identity in unhealthy ways than to help them develop true, healthy modesty. I hope, and based on what I see I believe, that my wife and I have managed to achieve a decent balance in this regard.

Danielle, who blogs at From Two to One, did an excellent series on modesty. You'll find the first article in the series here.